Ally (noun) someone who stands with or advocates for individuals and groups other than their own (Credit to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” project)
Plenty of recent discussion has focused on how those of us who are part of dominant social groups with more power can use that power to give a hand up to those who are not members of those social groups. Between it being Pride month and the myriad race discussions we’re all participating in right now, I’m bringing my own privilege to the table to share some thoughts on allyship. I’ll state clearly that none of these ideas are entirely original to me, and that they are gleaned from a variety of sources I’ve read and listened to, both recently and over time. Two recent HBR Women at Work podcasts episodes have definitely helped me to crystalize my thoughts, both around gender-based allyship and race-based allyship.
Important foundational concept: You don’t get to declare yourself an ally. I don’t get to declare myself an ally. We may participate in actions intended to provide allyship, but that does NOT make us an ally. This isn’t a participation trophy. The title of ally is earned and it’s hard work.
Allyship is not performative (and if you think that folx won’t pick up on performative actions, you’ve got another thing coming). Allyship requires one to provide a measurable difference in the environment for those who are not part of dominant social groups. What is your metric for your own work as an ally? The work of your institution to create a system of allyship (think about culture, practices, process)?
I’ve realized that when we are trying to achieve change that it has to be intentional; we can’t just say magic words and have it happen, and we can’t just make a statement without a plan without doing some work. And, whether we like it or not, our identities impact how we do this work; we have to know ourselves first. The Southern Poverty Law Center has resources designed for classroom teachers, but as someone who identifies as an educator I find this exercise in identity mapping helpful. Not only does it encourage me to reflect on my identities and ways in which they may advantage or disadvantage me, it also lets me consider how I can use my unique self, reach, and influence to do ally work. We each need to seek our “superpower” that is available to us- both in ally work and elsewhere- and intentionally use those gifts as a catalyst for change.
Here’s the thing about being an ally: It’s simply the right thing to do in terms of developing an environment that provides psychological safety for everyone. AND it allows us to understand, recognize, and honor the impact of identity within that broader culture. Doing the work of allyship is ultimately benefits all of us, and it helps us to create a space in which all can and do belong.